Friday, October 8, 2010

Burning Down the House

The Cranick family didn't pay a $75 fire surcharge required by their community in Tennessee. Last week, their house caught fire. The fire department came, but since the owner hadn't paid the fee, they allowed the house to burn. They did so despite the owner's pleas, even as he told them he would write them a check for any amount if they would just save his house. The house burned to the ground. Fortunately no people died, but family pets, three dogs and a cat, were killed in the fire.

Here is what Glenn Beck had to say about this event: "If you don't pay your $75, then that hurts the fire department. They can't use those resources, and you would be sponging off of your neighbor's $75 dollars." He called what happened "equal justice." It was a lesson, he seems to think.

This may be the only time I ever say this, but Beck has a point. When some people pay into a system that supplies a public service and others don't, it is unfair to those who pay in if everyone who does not also receives those services.

The problem is that, as usual, he fails to see the all the ramifications of that point of view. This awful event is, in fact, the logical consequence of a vision of government that turns what should be basic public services into a pay-for-service function. If you make the services of firefighters into a privilege one must pay for, then Beck is right—you logically have to let the house burn down, with the animals inside (and, one supposes, any people too).

The morally correct conclusion to reach, however, is that something that can be literally a life-and-death matter therefore should never be relegated to pay-for-service status.  Fire protection should be a public service, available to all, and supported by taxes. As the owner's son has said, "To stand and watch a man's house burn is morally and ethically wrong." One might expect Beck to come to that conclusion too (after all, he claims that Americans must, as says he has, "turn back to God"). But he hasn't. Why not?

This is probably giving Beck too much credit, but perhaps somewhere deep down he realizes that the system of fire prevention that resulted in the Cranick home burning down is essentially the same system we have until recently had for health care, the same system that conservatives campaigning this fall are pledging to restore, the same system that Beck defends.

Before the new health insurance law was passed last spring, our ad hoc health care system was basically a pay-for-service system. There was no legal requirement to have health insurance. Those who had insurance, when they got sick, could go to the doctor. But the uninsured individual in need of emergency medical care was in the same position as the Cranicks. The difference, of course, is that a civilized society does not turn away a sick person in the emergency room because the person has no health insurance (of course, up until this week, I thought the same was true of every fire department).

Such people, in Beck's words, have been "sponging off" their neighbor's health insurance premiums. That essential problem with the old system is why the new health care law includes the requirement that people buy health insurance (government subsidized, if necessary), precisely the element of the law that Republican attorneys general all across the country are challenging in court.

Without that requirement, the logic that Beck applied to the Cranicks would kick in. When the uninsured person showed up in the emergency room, the doctors and nurses should do what those firefighters did: stand by and let nature take its course. If Beck thinks it is acceptable for government to require people to pay a fire protection surcharge or face the consequences, why not apply that same logic to the individual mandate? Given the Republican contempt for those who "sponge off" the system, you would think that they would be all for the individual mandate. Instead, they denounce it as unconstitutional socialist tyranny. So much for consistency.

One final note: obviously oblivious to the tremendous irony of it, when Beck spoke those callous words, there was a poster of Benjamin Franklin hanging on the wall behind him, and beneath Ben's face, the word "Charity." Part of Beck's schtick is that he presumes to be teaching the rest of us about American history, especially restoring to the American people the "real" founders. But if he really knew the first thing about Franklin, Beck would know that fire prevention was one of his favorite causes.

In 1734, Franklin recommended a system composed of a "Club or Society of active Men belonging to each Fire Engine; whose Business is to attend to all Fires with it whenever they happen." All fires, not some. And their compensation was "an Abatement or Exemption in the taxes." In other words, they were paid from public funds. Supplying the firefighters with "Buckets and Ladders" Franklin considered "a Duty incumbent upon all who can afford it." Putting out fires, he believed, was a public good, one that all should contribute to in some fashion, and one that those with greater means should support economically for the greater good.

If only Beck would take to heart this piece of advice offered by Franklin: "But such as can neither advise nor labour, should not stand in the Way of those who can, and are willing."

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